What Is Mental Distress?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2019
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Mental distress refers to the experience of unpleasant emotions like anxiety and depression, which may be associated with an active mental illness like post traumatic stress disorder, although not necessarily. This term is used variably around the world by health care providers and patients. The disparity in how the term is used is important to be aware of, as there can be some confusion about what is meant by “mental distress.” Patients who experience signs of mental illness should seek treatment, as it may be possible to address them and increase patient comfort.

Some care providers use this term when a patient has signs of emotional disturbance but does not fit the criteria for a specific mental health diagnosis. This can be especially common in the wake of a traumatic event like job loss, death of a family member, or the experience of combat. The patient may feel depressed or fatigued, could experience flashes of anger, and may exhibit other symptoms of unbalanced mental health. This form of mental distress may be treatable with rest and some therapy to recover from the trauma.


Other care providers and patients use this term in preference to “mental illness” and will refer to a patient with a specific diagnosis as being in mental distress. Patients with conditions like schizophrenia, anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder often develop symptoms of distress that can wax and wane over time. Treatment may address them, but these patients can be more susceptible to stress reactions when major events occur. These patients may find this term more appropriate for describing their experiences.

If a person exhibits mental distress, evaluation and treatment are very important. A care provider can meet with the patient to discuss the situation and the symptoms. Determining a diagnosis, if the patient has one, is an important part of treatment. Treatments can vary by diagnosis, and it is critical to make sure the patient receives appropriate care. This can include therapy, medications, and lifestyle adjustments such as coping skills training.

Some mental distress can have a genetic component. In a family with a history of certain mental illnesses, other family members may be more at risk. In other cases, it appears to be random, and does not have a specific genetic link or environmental trigger. Mental health conditions are not the fault of the patient, and it is important to be aware that there are many approaches to treatment. If a patient doesn't respond well to one treatment, it does not necessarily mean she is untreatable.


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